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Is Turkey ditching Saudi Arabia for Iran?

The recent string of high-level meetings between Iranian and Turkish officials suggests that the two regional powerhouses may be moving closer on Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shake hands following a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara on August 12, 2016.  / AFP / ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

TEHRAN, Iran — In recent years, tension between Iran and Turkey has been rooted in differences over regional developments rather than bilateral disagreements. Indeed, if one reviews the exchanges between the two neighbors during the past two decades, one can see that clashing policy toward regional issues has been virtually the only source of conflict. Now, however, more than five years after the beginning of the crisis in Syria, evidence pointing to a decline in Iranian-Turkish disagreements over the war-torn country is beginning to emerge.

Though one of Turkey’s main demands has been that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down, he has yet to be toppled and the crisis in Syria has continued. Turkey’s tacit acceptance of Assad remaining in power originally came at a high price for Ankara, but it has gradually tried to adapt itself to new realities. This process of change in Turkey’s foreign policy has intensified in the wake of the failed coup attempt in July. One week prior to the putsch, in late June, Turkey officially apologized to Russia over the downing of a Russian fighter jet, thus ending the self-made controversy with Moscow. Moreover, in August, on his first trip abroad since the failed coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited St. Petersburg, where he discussed bilateral and regional issues with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Since then, there have been rumors about a possible change in Turkey’s strategic approach toward Syria, especially considering Russia’s clear stance on the issue.

Meanwhile, prior to the failed coup, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had to twice cancel visits to Turkey. In contrast, during his trip to Turkey in August, he met not only with his Turkish counterpart but with Erdogan as well and even attended Friday prayers alongside Turkey’s president.

Zarif’s visit came after Iran’s adoption of a supportive stance toward Erdogan as the coup was unfolding, helping improve relations with Turkey. Indeed, in spite of the two neighbors’ serious disagreements over Syria, their bilateral relations have continued to improve. After his visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Zarif on Sept. 28 made an unexpected stop in Ankara for a few hours on his way back to Tehran.

A source in the Iranian Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “It is natural that Turkey will not officially comment on its change of strategy regarding Syria. We don’t expect them to change their position so quickly. However, we can see a change in the way they view Syria — both in practice and in bilateral discussions. We are not in a hurry, since we know that this process takes time.”

The question is whether Iran and Turkey can really overcome their differences on Syria. Former senior Iranian diplomat Nosratollah Tajik told Al-Monitor, “Turkey’s game in Syria, be it in Aleppo, Jarablus or other areas, can be very dangerous and make things worse, considering that they are fighting against both the Kurds and Islamic State while they are at the same time aiding other armed opposition groups in Syria. After the failed coup and Erdogan’s visit to Russia, the general view was that Ankara would change its strategy toward Syria. We should remember, however, that this change is tactical and not strategic. In other words, instead of supporting the Islamic State, Turkey will now support other groups.”

Nonetheless, the geopolitics of the region is forcing Iran and Turkey to strive for better relations with one another. As the coup attempt was unfolding, Iran was the first country to condemn the actions of the putschists. Iran’s decision to stand with Erdogan resulted in Turkey realizing that Tehran is its most reliable friend in the region. In addition, the passage of time has probably made it clear to Ankara that its previous regional strategy, and especially its strategy in Syria, has not helped it achieve anything.

On the other hand, following Zarif’s Sept. 28 stopover in Ankara, he and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu announced through a statement issued by Iran's Foreign Ministry that Iran and Turkey have agreed to collaborate with each other on ending the conflict in Syria and sending humanitarian aid. This is a new and important development that can be seen as a sign pointing to the impending unfolding of an important development in Syria.

However, this is the official version of the story, and little is known about the agreements made behind the scenes. Nonetheless, Zarif’s visit is important if for no reason other than the fact that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Nayef, visited Turkey the very next day. This was in keeping with the trend of senior Saudi officials, particularly Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, seemingly following Zarif on his travels and visiting any place he has recently visited. The most recent example of the latter was Jubeir’s trip to Africa immediately after Zarif’s tour of the continent. The pro-Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat believes that the reason behind Jubeir’s African trip was to curb Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia’s efforts in this regard extend to public diplomacy. For instance, when Zarif wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on Jan. 10, singling out Saudi Arabia over its alleged support for militant extremists, Jubeir wrote a piece in the very same newspaper just over a week later, on Jan. 19, in which he attacked Iran over its alleged support for terrorism.

As such, the key question is whom Turkey will side with when it comes to the next steps on Syria. A source in the Iranian Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “These recent successive visits [by Iranian and Turkish officials] are signs of a possible new development in Iran-Turkey relations. This development can change the course of events in the region and push Saudi Arabia toward strategic isolation. This is similar to developments in Saudi-US relations, which have worried and angered the Saudi government and have placed them in a situation where they have to fight on all fronts.”

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